Movie review: The Irishman (2019)

The latest Scorsese film hit Netflix. I waited. And then waited some more. Then I, somewhat reluctantly, sat down to watch the three plus hour movie.

It’s not that I thought it would be bad. I thought it would be excellent. Scorsese films always are. And the actors! How wonderful to see Pacino, De Niro, and Pesci on the screen again in a serious drama.

It’s just that it was just another gangster/mobster film. (These aren’t the only types of films that Scorsese does, but dang, it sure feels like it sometimes.)

The movie is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses and focuses on Frank Sheeren, a hitman for the Bufalino family. An Irishman, Frank gets in close with Russell in an accidental meeting over a broken truck. Russell is high up in the Pennsylvania mob.

Frank starts out driving trucks for meat delivery but soon is trusted with more. He evolves quickly into quite the reliable thug. He is the lone Irishman in a world of Italians, but he and Russell remain close. Even in prison. Even when Russell is wheeled away for one last visit to the church before going to the hospital and then the grave.

But this isn’t just a movie about mobsters and crime families. The Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa are front and center, mixed up with the mob. Hoffa personally signs off on any loans from the union pension fund to mob projects.

Russell introduces Frank to Hoffa and the two hit it off. Best of friends. Frank is constantly trying to rein in Jimmy or advise him in ways that will prolong his life with the mob. But Hoffa is portrayed as quite the hot-head. He trusts Frank with his life. According to the narrative pushed by The Irishman, that was his mistake.

Hoffa disappeared one night in 1975 and was never heard from again. In real life, the FBI set their sights on Chuckie O’Brien, claiming that he drove Hoffa to his death. A recent book by Chuckie O’Brien’s step-son disputes this narrative (and claims that even the FBI has rejected their theory about Chuckie being behind Hoffa’s murder.)

The Irishman never explains why Chuckie was driving the car but also never implies that he was knowingly involved in Hoffa’s disappearance. Frank was merely following orders from Russell but was clearly bothered by killing his close friend. The film shows that one of Frank’s daughters, who was always aloof with the mobsters, formed a close bond with Hoffa. When Hoffa disappeared, she rightly suspected her father and broke off all communication with him for the rest of his life.

At various times in the story, the movie displays textual updates on mobsters, indicating what happened to them later. Most died. Some were imprisoned. Frank Sheeran and Russell Bufalino were two of the few who didn’t die a gruesome death. Instead, Russell died a natural death in prison and the implication is that Frank will die soon in his post-prison nursing home.

The point of the movie (and the book on which it is based)? Crime isn’t a lifestyle to emulate? Crime isn’t glamorous? Hoffa was killed by Frank? I am not clear. It began with Frank sitting in a wheelchair in a nursing home and ended with a priest leaving his side at the nursing home. No remorse. No regret. Just a life of violence and loyalty to Russell over Jimmy. A life that is coming to a close.

Book review: When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-century America

I was introduced to the concept of affirmative action as being mainly for whites during the Scene On Radio series of podcasts about whiteness (Being White). I scoured the podcast’s bibliography and found When Affirmative Action Was White.

To be honest, for some reason, I thought the book was going to be a narrative history from the 1600s onward. In reality, it was an argument that focused on government policies from the 1930s through the 1950s. The New Deal, Social Security, labor laws, the GI Bill were not necessarily racist or written for whites only. But because of political and institutional racism in the US, they ended up being discriminatory.

These laws and federal programs helped millions of white Americans and pushed aside millions of black Americans. While African Americans received some benefits, the aid they received was miniscule compared to what whites received. These federal programs were responsible for creating a middle class. Ironically, these programs increased inequality and the wealth gap between whites and blacks. Thanks to these programs, blacks are now further behind whites.

When Affirmative Action Was White is less a history about affirmative action and more a review of how the programs propped up the Southern racist culture and Jim Crow laws. To cut to the chase, to get sufficient votes for these programs to become law, non-Southern Democrats had to cut deals with the Southern Democrats. The deals they cut? Allow the states to administer the programs locally and distribute the money. In essence, Southern Congress members could ensure that their Southern way of life (read: racist) continued.

It was as if the Civil War and the freedom of the slaves never happened. The result has been generational poverty and wealth inequalities.

About the time that moves were made to include blacks more and more in affirmative action, the cry for color-blindness arose. Affirmative action was OK for whites, but when it extended more fully to blacks, then suddenly race needed to be ignored.

The author argues that the convention of looking at affirmative action as starting in the 1960s with Johnson’s Great Society does a grave disservice to understanding the inequality gap. You cannot cry foal with modern forms of affirmative action (e.g., “Susie Smith didn’t get into Harvard because her spot went to a black student”). This ignores how previous affirmative action preferenced whites over blacks.

The endpoint that the author builds up to is President Johnson’s speech at Howard University in 1965 and Justice Powell’s 1978 decision that both supported and circumscribed affirmative action. Johnson’s vision never came to fruition. And Powell’s description of affirmative action as needing to be clear and specific about racial injuries AND remedying a racist public policy is held up as the gold standard.

Honestly, I am not clear why Powell’s description has such weight.

The author also argues that the opponents of affirmative action have been super clear in their arguments against it. Those in favor of affirmative action haven’t been and must be.

Again I am not sure what these arguments should be other than they must follow Powell’s guidelines.

I feel like this book assumes intimate knowledge about the history of affirmative action and certain laws. (Portal to Portal Act? Taft-Hartley?)

Parts of the book were enlightening and made me think. I realized that WWII led blacks to experience treatment that they did not in the segregated US. Being treated as a human with respect and dignity in Europe made it difficult to return to the Jim Crow South or discriminatory North. The civil rights movement in part came out of the taste of first-class treatment that blacks GIs received abroad during the war.

However, I didn’t think about this same situation occurring after WWI. The 1920s, immediately after WWI, was a horrible time in terms of racism in the US. Not that other times were great but the 1920s saw a sharp rise in racism, e.g., lynchings, KKK hysteria. Why? The implication is that black GIs returned to a US where they were not treated as human beings. They needed to be controlled and forced back into the sub-human places the dominant white culture demanded they be.

The utterly disheartening and enraging point that surfaces again and again is the acquiescence to Southern demands that Southern culture (i.e., white supremacy) not be touched. State administration was demanded and the cry of states’ rights raised repeatedly.

I realized, thanks to this book, how completely US public policy has been hijacked by the South and their racist agenda. Blacks have not truly been free. The South dictates everything in all spheres of life. And non-Southern politicians have allowed the racism to persist and have helped prop it up. This is unconscionable.

State’s rights, which have always made me uneasy, are clearly code for racism and discrimination. Leaving states to decide how to implement federal programs or distribute money is kind of like putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Not a good idea if you want to have hens. Or if you want federal programs to positively impact the economic and social betterment of all Americans.

Indiana socialist

Perhaps it is not so strange that Bernie Sanders won the Indiana Democratic primary in 2016. After all, Indiana was home to another presidential candidate steeped in the socialist tradition: Eugene V. Debs.

Debs might be too far in the past for Hoosiers to remember. Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs was originally a Democratic elected to the Indiana General Assembly in 1884. He became involved in several unions and strikes. In one strike, he ended up in prison, where he read socialist literature and then emerged as a socialist. He ran for president— five times—as a socialist.

We have Debs to thank for many rights that we take for granted today, such as an eight-hour workday, workers’ compensation, and sick leave.